Vigorous fight needed to match mounting power

By Freedom Newspapers

The worst of it was that the murder was so blatant. Anna Politkovskaya, 48, a special correspondent for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, has ruffled the feathers of Russian authorities for a decade, particularly with her unrelenting reporting of Russia’s “dirty war” in Chechnya.

The government has been cracking down on independent journalism for several years, and a number of journalists have been murdered in that time, including Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of Forbes magazine’s Russian edition, probably killed for knowing too much about Russia’s oligarchs.

Anna Politkovskaya’s assassin cornered her in her apartment building, shot her once in the heart and three times in the head, then left the silenced Makarov pistol next to her body, the signature of a contract killing. This happened in broad daylight Oct. 7. She was buried last week in Moscow; a memorial ceremony was held in Washington.

It is almost impossible to doubt that this murder was not only intended to silence one of the most active — and one of the few — independent and visible critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also to send a message to any other journalists who might be tempted to be so actively critical.

Whether it was paid for directly by somebody in government or handled more discreetly, it is all too likely that it will have the intended effect.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the murder will be solved officially — although her newspaper has vowed to conduct an independent investigation.

It has been obvious for several years that Putin has been systematically eliminating potential threats to his increasingly authoritarian rule. The arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky stifled any nascent stirrings of independence among Russia’s oligarchs and other businessmen. The recent closing of transportation facilities between Russia and Georgia highlights Russian interest in exercising more control over former Soviet satellites in the “near abroad.”

U.S. and European leaders have criticized this growing authoritarianism both in public statements and, they insist, in private meetings with Putin. But the criticisms have not gotten in the way of diplomatic niceties, posing for happy-face photos and other gestures of friendship.

It may be important to continue to deal with Russia, if only because of its arsenal of nuclear and other weapons and its oil and mineral wealth. But Western diplomats and other leaders should do so with open eyes. Vladimir Putin has established a nasty regime that continues to consolidate something close to absolute and brutal power at the center. There’s no need to pretend otherwise, and good reason to be more forceful in criticism.